There are a lot of sunscreen brands out there that are surf specific these days, so it can be hard to pick one out. If you’ve found yourself staring at the shelves without a clue what to buy, this guide is for you. Sunscreen is so, so important. I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self this, as I ended up with a basal cell carcinoma skin cancer on my nose by age 30! It was almost certainly caused by sun exposure from surfing. I now cake as much sunscreen on my face as I can and you’ll often see me in a full wetsuit even if it’s hot out just to protect my skin.
Using an SPF of at least 30 is definitely a requirement for being out in the surf. 30 SPF will block 97% of the sun’s rays. There is no sunblock that can block 100% of UV rays. High SPF sunscreens do not last longer than lower SPFs, so SPF is not a factor in reapplication times. In other words, that SPF 100 is not doing much more than an SPF 30 and you still need to reapply.
Because you’re in the water the sun and UV rays are being reflected at you from all sorts of angles. Plus, surf sessions tend to be long – about 1-2 hours for most people. That’s a long time, and sun exposure can add up quite quickly.
In addition to SPF factor you’ll want to make sure that there is broad spectrum protection (meaning UVA and UVB rays).
Water Resistant / Surf Specific
There’s no totally waterproof sunscreen, but there are sunscreens that are water resistant. The thing is, the water resistant specifications can vary. Many sunscreens will tell you to reapply after a certain amount of time if you’re in the water.
A lot of surf-specific sunscreens go on like thick foundation and do not wash off very easily. This is much better than your average drugstore sunscreen. If you’re using fancy drugstore sunscreen it might not be robust enough to withstand all the water you’ll encounter while surfing and could prematurely wash off.
Chemical Vs Mineral
Looking at the ingredients in your sunscreen is a very good idea. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the UV rays like a sponge. Chemicals such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate use this kind of technology. These types of sunscreens tend to absorb into the skin better, and don’t leave a white residue.
Physical sunblocks such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sit on top of the skin and deflect as well as absorb the sun’s rays.
Is one safer than the other? According the the American Academy of Dermatology, any claims that chemical sunscreen ingredients are toxic or hazardous have not been proven.
Many sunscreens will have a combination of physical and chemical agents working together.
Pure mineral sunscreens will likely be a combination of Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide, or one or the other.
SPECIAL NOTE: Avoid any sunblocks that contain retinol. Retinol encourages skin cell turnover, which is great for reversing sun damage but these new skin cells are very sensitive to the sun. Retinol should only be used at night or when you are totally out of the sun.
What about natural sunblocks? There are a number of all natural sunblocks out there that use no chemicals. As someone who has had skin cancer once already I don’t risk it with natural sunblocks, especially if they haven’t been tested. I won’t say don’t use them, but make sure you do your research and make sure they are tested and protect against UVA and UVB rays. This is especially important for your kids. Many natural sunblocks do not do what they say they’re doing. Protection from sun damage that can lead to cancer is much more important than a few chemicals that haven’t been proven to be harmful.
Here’s a good (dermatologist authored) article debating whether or not chemical sunblocks are bad for you. I’m all for natural products but I remain skeptical of claims that aren’t proven, especially if they lead people into selecting sunblock products that aren’t as effective.
Reef safe? Many sunblocks out there are now advertising themselves as reef safe. They do not contain oxybenzone which has been implicated in reef bleaching.
Apply your sunblock 15-20 minutes before heading into the sun. However, if you’re using a mineral based blocker such as zinc oxide it will start protecting right away. Personally I like to double layer sunblock on my face: I use Headhunter SPF 50 lotion and rub it in. I then use their SPF 30 “stick” and smear that all over my nose and cheeks like warpaint to give those areas extra protection. I’m not sure if this protects me more from the sun or not, but it can’t hurt.
Reapplication: I confess I have never gone in from surfing to reapply sunblock during my session. However, I probably should. I do know you can bring the Headhunter sticks out into the water with you and reapply there, which is something I might experiment with in the future as it seems that despite the heavy sunblock I put on my face before sessions I can still tell my skin is getting sun.
Know Your Risks
Also, know your risks! Even darker skinned people can develop skin cancer and increased skin aging. I cringe when my black or latino friends say they don’t need sunblock…they do! Also, are you taking any antibiotics or using any topicals that increase photosensitivity? A common acne topical, benzoyl peroxide, can increase sun sensitivity. I didn’t know this before I got skin cancer.
Get Your Skin Checked
I’m also very surprised that my surfing friends don’t get checkups from dermatologists. At the very least you should go once every year, especially if you have high risk factors such as fair skin, moles, or a family history.
If I wasn’t going to a dermatologist on a regular basis I probably would have left the basal cell carcinoma on my nose for a lot longer before getting it checked out. As it was, the ice cream scoop they took out of my nose was pretty big and it had only been visible for a short time. No it likely wouldn’t have killed me, but the longer they get left in the skin the more disfiguring the tumor can become.
At the very least, read up on skin cancers and know how to spot them so they can be dealt with quickly.
Best Surf Sunscreens
I went and purchased several different brands and varieties of surf sunscreens from the local Surf Ride in Solana Beach to give them a go. I was not given samples or product by the brands, so this review is made up purely of my observations without bias. Will any of these unseat my current favorite Headhunter? Read on to find out! Please note: unfortunately this is not a fully exhaustive test of every surf sunscreen on the market. However, I will be testing other products in the future to add to this post.
I’ve been using Headhunter for a while now, using my double-up method described above. It does not sting my eyes and doesn’t wash off very easily. Their SPF 30 surf and sport sunblock is very effective in protecting my body as well.
They have both clear and tinted, however I personally find tinted sunscreens to stain everything I own. I personally don’t care if my face is white in the lineup–I’m out there to surf not be a model 😉
I’ve tried a few of the other popular surf sunblocks and they are messy. In particular, Waterman’s (not available anymore) left me looking like a geisha and was nearly impossible to rub in or remove. I don’t mind looking white but not that white. So, Headhunter remains my favorite.
- Easy application – will rub in and feels dry.
- Tinted and clear options.
- Easy to double layer if you so desire.
- Tricky to remove
- The lotion alone may not stay on as long as some of the other more thick brands. Reapplication necessary.
Vertra is another brand of sunscreen marketed heavily towards surfers and other water sport enthusiasts. Vertra is very thick and doesn’t really rub in. However, some may like the fact that this stuff really stays in place. Personally I found it just a tad too messy, but it’s a high quality sunscreen. They are also the official sunscreen of the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association.
It appears Vertra doesn’t come in a tube form anymore–it’s stick only. They have both tinted and white versions, and are reef safe. And if you want to fan out, John John Florence has a Vertra signature variety 🙂
Interestingly, Vertra’s SFP ratings are taken after the test subjects have been exposed to 80 minutes of water activity.
Sun Bum has burst onto the surf sunblock scene recently with some surf specific formulations. They had a LOT of options on the shelf when I was buying stuff to test out, so I stuck with the Signature Lotion/Premium Clear Zinc, the Signature Tinted Face Stick, and the Baby Bum face stick. I will add more varieties to this review as I try them out.
Surf Mud is a thick, tinted foundation type sunscreen that comes in a small tin. (Note: this is not the EiR NYC brand surf mud) It’s 30% zinc oxide, so it sure packs a punch. Because it’s made in Australia it doesn’t have an SPF. You can buy Surf Mud at surf shops in Australia as well as in the States, but check their website for more information on stockists. As of this writing, Bing in Leucadia (Encinitas) carries Surf Mud.
I really like Surf Mud’s level of protection, although I was a bit concerned at the lack of SPF listed on the tin. They say it’s 30% zinc oxide and their recommended reapplication threshold is 4 hours.
- Thick and tacky – this stuff stays on!
- 30% zinc is one of the highest zinc contents of all the sunscreens tested here.
- Tinted so you don’t look like a ghost.
- Rather messy. Will stain wetsuit, clothes, board.
- Definitely need some makeup remover wipes to get it all off.